Gym sessions for the mind
Developing mental strength is just as much a part of being a Strong Lady (or strong man) as developing your biceps.
Just like you develop muscular strength with regular training sessions, it is our habits and daily practices that act as ‘gym sessions’ for growing our mental strength.
When you have a lifting goal or a big trick that you are working towards, you train drills and repetitions of the technique without the full weight. This is to be sure that, in the moment of full strain, you have both the power you need and the correct alignment to keep it safe… In terms of mental strength, when we repeat any action, thought sequence or behavior, it creates a neural pathway in the brain. Every time it is repeated it becomes stronger, taking less deliberate energy to repeat next time (or more energy and focus to change). We can best break unhealthy habits (or neural pathways) by deliberately repeating the habit that we want to replace them with. While it will take considerable effort to begin with, the habit will become easier to continue as the pathway becomes stronger. In times where you are calm and energised, do the work of developing better habits through repetition, so that when you are stressed you will instinctively do the things that spiral you up, not down.
There are some habits and practices that neuro-scientists, psychologists and strong ladies all agree are very potent ways to prepare the mind for the ‘heavy lifting’ of being in the world. Here are some of my favourite ‘gym sessions’ for the mind…
We can not control what happens around us, or even what thoughts pop up in our mind – but we can choose where to focus our attention.
Love, fun, appreciation and admiration are all part of gratitude. Scientific research suggests that a daily gratitude habit, such as keeping a gratitude journal or taking a daily photo of something we find beautiful, activates the approach system of the brain. This increases energy and happiness levels, as well as boosting the immune system and even relieving physical pain.
The mind has a negative bias built into it’s survival mechanism, so it takes a conscious choice and repeated effort to train the mind to prioitise things that we want to see, as it scans the horizon. We don’t need to put a silver lining on things that need to change, or that upset us – but in any scene we can cast our focus on something that feels better – actively seeking things to focus on that feel good.
I was recently in an airport travelling home from an international gig. The flight was delayed by five hours, I was feeling sick and ended up spending much of those 5 hours vomiting in the airport toilets, my phone ran out of battery and I was lonely. It was not fun. But I found considerable relief by repeatedly scanning the situation for what I could feel good about: that the vomiting hit when it did and not on the flight, that there was a comfortable seat by the window where I could watch the clouds, that the cleaning staff in the bathroom looked at me kindly and that I was going to feel better eventually.
I’m going to write a whole thing about this soon… so for now I will just say that I am finding a daily meditation practice one of the most powerful things I’ve ever done to grow my ‘mental-muscle’ and increase my enjoyment of life.
Make choices, be clear and take action. It doesn’t need to be the perfect decision (or even a big decision) just choose things every day. Making decisions is a quick way to relieve anxiety and release chemicals in the brain that make us feel energized and optimistic. No one responds well to feeling trapped or a to a pile of ‘should’ and ‘have-to’. By making choices we answer our desire for freedom and power over our lives.
Choose always FOR what you DO want, rather than against what you don’t want. It’s the difference between “I want to be strong enough to safely do this trick” as a starting point for training, rather than “I don’t want to hurt myself trying this trick”. The mind has a complex filter system that will show you more of what you are focusing on. When we choose finding the solution rather than solving the problem, we see opportunities much faster.
Move your body in a way that feels fun EVERY day. It doesn’t need to be the gym, even a little walk is great, especially if you can find somewhere pretty or in nature. For me, I always seek out spots near water.
The impact that exercise has on the brain is immense, releasing many of the same chemicals as antidepressants or other drugs, without any side effects. If you are trying to control your emotions under stress, to lift your mood or to resist temptation, then a moment of exercise before you take action will put you in a stronger mental state.
Some tips on getting the most neurological benefit from your exercise include: making it feel fun and voluntary; exercise that causes variation in your heart rate; writing out a plan and ticking it off; visualising what you are aiming for while exercising; exercising in beautiful surroundings; and exercise that has a social element.
Smile and Laugh
The brain and the body influence each other in a bio-feedback loop. Strong emotions cause physical reactions (eg. tensing of facial muscles if we are stressed). Likewise, if we adjust our physical state, it creates changes in the brain (eg. relaxing the muscles of the face to calm the mind). The brain reacts in the same way when we smile and laugh, whether it is triggered by something pleasing or if you ‘fake’ it, so either way is will start an upward spiral.
Smiling, laughing, adopting upright open posture, slowing breathing or relaxing the face and other muscles are all good ways to reduce stress levels and increase happiness. Regular massage and yoga practice are also scientifically proven ways to feel more content and at peace.
Go on… Smile, for no reason at all… make the biofeedback loop work for you.
Some books that you might enjoy about these things:
Upward Spiral (by Alex Korb)
Mindfulness, Finding Peace in a Frantic World (by Mark Williams)